Thursday, January 21, 2010

Arne Duncan, One Year Later

In December of 2008, President-Elect Barack Obama nominated Arne Duncan, the Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools, as Secretary of Education. I wrote a blog post containing some predictions of what this nomination might mean for the educational policies of the Obama administration. You can find that post here:
Duncan "sailed" through his confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate, and was confirmed on the day that Obama was inaugurated. That was one year ago, yesterday.

One year later, as the nation participates in an appraisal of Obama's first year, the education media are doing the same with regard to educational policies. Education Week, in particular, has a piece entitled "Duncan Carves Deep Mark on Policy in First Year," published in yesterday's print edition. The article focuses on Duncan's management style, his policy priorities, and the criticism he has received.

Reading the Education Week piece caused me to go back and review the reflections and predictions that I made in my post back in December of 2008.

Back then, I listed the following qualifications that may have led to Obama's selection of Duncan despite his lack of teaching experience or advanced degrees in education:

  • Duncan is a consummate diplomat.
  • Duncan is smart. He listens.
  • Duncan is a pragmatist.
  • Duncan is not only pragmatic, but he is also independent.
  • He plays basketball....
  • His kids go to the same public school as my son does and daughter did.
The last two "qualifications" were intended partly as tongue-in-cheek, and, of course, once Duncan moved to Washington DC the last qualification ceased to be true. However, I believe that the first year has borne out the first four of my qualifications, with perhaps the following qualifications:

  1. At the Chicago Public Schools, Arne's primary responsibility was generating a public perception (especially among the middle class) that CPS was working hard to improve some of the most abysmal schools in America. He succeeded in that task by creating "spin" of various kinds of data that emerged about the schools, by being "hands-on" in the sense that he was willing to go out to communities and schools and personally confront outspoken parents and other critics, and by his capacity to strike people as a "nice guy" even while pushing some ideas that are not universally popular, such as closing underperforming schools and increasing the role of corporate and private partners in the schools. To a large extent, these qualities have continued in his role as U.S. Secretary of Education, with one major difference: Duncan is no longer focusing on building up the image of a particular school system; rather, his public-relations challenge is convincing people outside of education that the Department of Education is serious about educational reform. The public at large is convinced that American schools (in general) are pretty bad, and they want Duncan's Department to do something about that, or at least appear to be doing something. Specifically, the public at large is distrustful of educational professionals (especially professors of teacher education and teachers unions, but also including teachers in general and school district officials especially). Duncan has managed to convince many corporate interests that the Department is, in fact, willing to undermine those allegedly entrenched educational professionals, and has managed to use the leverage of new funding to affect educational policies in a number of states, including Illinois. Teachers and (especially) professors of education I know are visibly nervous about the agenda that Duncan is pushing, but this doesn't seem to bother Duncan at all or, for that matter, Duncan's boss. (The impact of this on public support for Obama's policies by these traditionally liberal constituencies should not be underestimated.)

    Just as an aside, Duncan's public relations efforts are managed by Peter Cunningham (no relation to this author), who also managed public relations when Duncan was at CPS.

  2. Duncan has proven his intelligence in numerous public appearances before different constituencies. Even when he went to Teachers College in New York to talk about the challenges faced by teacher education, he demonstrated a firm grasp of the history of education (while also generating considerable skepticism about his prescriptions). Also, at least according to the Education Week article mentioned above, he listens, at least to his staff, and to those interests (corporate, philanthropic) that support his policies. The primary group that Arne does NOT appear to be listening to (much) are educational professionals; indeed, Arne's seemingly bullheaded efforts to push his agenda seem to be designed (from a public relations standpoint. at least) precisely to send the message that the usually suspected entrenched interests aren't going to be listened to at all unless they change their tunes. What's more, Duncan's closest advisors are also not educational professionals. Overall, the Department has largely become focused on using its influence to undermine their power. This doesn't appeal to the education professionals, who now commonly speak, as my co-blogger Barbara Stengel put it in a recent comment here, of "the incredible disappoint[ment] that the Obama/Duncan regime have brought with them." But if it's only the education professionals who are disappointed with the administration's policies, maybe that's a good thing from Duncan's perspective.

  3. When I said that Duncan was a "pragmatist," what I meant was that he isn't especially ideological, and embraces ideas (such as corporate-run charter schools and teacher merit pay) that aren't necessarily embraced by liberals. Or, as the New York Times put it with regard to his confirmation hearing, "Mr. Duncan laid out a thoroughly pragmatic and non-ideological educational agenda, vowing to do “anything that works” to raise achievement in public schools." In that sense, Duncan is pragmatic not in the philosophical sense (of Pierce, James, and Dewey), but in the more common parlance of "hardheaded," or "guided by practical experience and observation rather than theory" ( Again, I think that's what the public at large wants, because the public largely distrusts educational theory, since theory is what allegedly leads to such "disruptive" and "despised" educational innovations as the Life Adjustment Curriculum and New Math.

  4. Duncan's independence, which I spoke of a year ago, is most concretely demonstrated by his outspokenness, especially when talking to education professionals. As the Education Week article put it:

    "He told delegates to the National Education Association’s annual convention in San Diego last summer that teachers should be evaluated and paid based in part on student performance and that teacher tenure needed to be changed.

    "In October, he went to the University of Virginia’s education school and delivered some harsh remarks on teacher colleges, describing them as the “Bermuda Triangle” of higher education.

    "His outspokenness shows no sign of slackening."

    Less clear is how independent Duncan is of the corporate and philanthropic interests that he seems to be catering to in his policies and tone. Some (also here and here and here and here) say Duncan is really a corporatist at heart, seeking to further push schools toward becoming the training grounds of workers (including the military) and consumers. Duncan himself denies the label, preferring instead to publicly embrace (as he put it in his speech to Teachers College) "America's need and a public school's obligation to teach all students, all students to their full potential" as the primary element of the "dream of equal educational opportunity."

All-in-all, i think I did pretty well on the qualifications (or, more neutrally, the "qualities") that Arne brought to the Secretary's job. However, I'm embarrassed to say that I flubbed up the most important of my predicted implications:

"1. NCLB will be drastically restructured to focus on supports for improvement rather than negative consequences for failure."

Um, .........what?!? I was flat out wrong on this. Duncan seems very much UN-interested in changing the basic structure of NCLB, and in fact has embraced the notion of standards (and, by implication, standardized tests....even national standardized tests) to a degree that has surprised me and disappointed many. Indeed, it seems right to say (with Henry Giroux) that

"While President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have focused on public education, they have done so by largely embracing the Bush administration's view of educational reform, which includes more testing, more empirically based accountability measures, more charter schools, more military academies, defining the purpose of education in largely economic terms, and punishing public schools that don't measure up to high-stakes testing measures."

This, while appearing to be supportive of innovation and democratic education, at least for the benefit of those who really don't know what the accountability regime does to low-income schools.

My next three predictions fared much better:

"2. Opponents of charter schools have lost a huge battle. Their expansion will continue dramatically.

"3. Urban school districts will receive special attention from Washington.

"4. Washington will now begin to push a longer school day and longer school year, and the public will be gently pressured to force the unions to accept this without getting higher pay."

I think the jury is still out on my fifth prediction:

"5. Funding for educational research will no longer be tied to ideological criteria such as "evidence-based" practices. Rather, research will be judged in terms of its likely benefit to generalized issues of educational practice."

I was quite pleased that John Easton, formerly head of the Chicago Consortium on School research, was appointed to lead the Institute of Education Sciences, because John knows quite well the dangers hidden in the supposedly "scientific" notions behind "evidence-based practice," especially the expectation that all effectiveness research will use randomized control trials. Indeed, John has indicated that he will allow a variety of research methods, but has emphasized that "methodological rigor" will continue to be a primary interest pushed by IES. (What that really means is less clear.) John's primary agenda seems to be to increase the capacity of local schools and districts to conduct their own research, and the emphasis of newly announced grant programs seems to be on ensuring that schools or school districts are the primary beneficiary of IES-funded projects, rather than simply adding to the base of knowledge.

My sixth somewhat facetious prediction was simply boneheaded (although Obama himself had claimed during the campaign that he would do this):

"6. The bowling alley in the White House will be replaced with a Basketball Court."

The thing is, there has been a basketball court on the grounds of the White House since 1991, and the bowling alley (which is in the White House basement under the North Portico) simply doesn't have the ceiling height necessary for basketball.

Finally, and sadly, I was completely wrong on my seventh prediction, that

"Barbara Eason-Watkins, who has been the quiet but effective and resolute Chief Education Officer of the Chicago Public Schools for the past 6 years, will become Chicago Schools Chief."

Instead, Mayor Daley picked another untested person from outside of the education profession, Ron Huberman, who's primary impact on CPS so far has been his strong support for year-round schooling, along with the announcement of deep cuts in staff at the central office, a move necessitated by a looming budget deficit. What this signaled to me is that Daley likes having non-educators as CEO of CPS (Vallas, then Duncan, now Huberman), if only because such leaders have greater appeal with the middle-class voters that Daley wishes to appease. (More on Huberman at another time.)

So, in summary, I think I was right about why Duncan was picked (and I think he's doing exactly what Obama wants him to do), but my success at predicting implications was not especially good, with three being pretty spot on, three being dead wrong, and one still unclear.


So enough about the accuracy of my predictions and on to more important matters. Should we be disappointed in what we've seen from the Obama administration with regard to education policy? I'd say that question is a complicated one, and it depends (as most policy questions do) on our perspective.

Are we happy with the important role that colleges and universities play in teacher education in the U.S.? If so, we are likely scared and angry about Duncan's efforts to support alternative certification routes, especially those that lack university partners.

Do we think that national standards will lead inevitably to national standardized tests that will further erode the capacity of teachers and local school districts to focus on educational outcomes that are not tested (or even testable)? If so, we ought to be outraged about Duncan's continuing support of the accountability structures of NCLB.

Are we skeptical (or completely derisive) of the claim that educational outcomes will improve only when teachers are evaluated (and paid?) according to the scores their students receive on standardized tests? Then we should be very disappointed in Duncan, and should be doing everything possible to undermine Obama and Duncan, to lessen their impact.

Certainly among my very liberal colleagues in higher education and K-12 schools, fear, anger, and disappointment are widespread. Among this group, this is not "change we can believe in." But this group is also caught in a huge bind: the only viable political alternative to Obama is the conservative wing of the Republican party, whose opposition to health care reform, stem-cell research, gay and lesbian rights, arts funding, and affirmative action programs are even scarier than their all-too-familiar call for vouchers so that public funds can go to religious schools. At least Obama is on the liberal (if politically pragmatic) side of the line on these issues.

So, what do we do? Until the American public understands the the purpose of public schools is primarily to support democracy (in the Deweyan sense of that word), national education policy will continue to be dominated by corporatist and conservative interests whose primary agenda is to remove "entrenched interests" (especially those in Washington) from control of schools. The agenda can be stated simply, in Ronald Reagan's terms:

"I believe that parents, not government, have the primary responsibility for the education of their children. … So, we’ll continue to work in the months ahead for passage of tuition tax credits, vouchers, educational savings accounts, voluntary school prayer, and abolishing the Department of Education. Our agenda is to restore quality to education by increasing competition and by strengthening parental choice and local control."

Reagan's vision is compelling to most people, who love to believe that all parents are better suited to make educational decisions than all educational professionals, that "local control" of schools is always better than federal control (a position well-articulated by Diane Ravitch), and who dismiss the important role that corporations play in shaping parental expectations and beliefs. Education professionals are much less likely to put such faith in parents or to dismiss the pervasive influence of corporations. If we are brave enough to admit it, we will say that we've seen the incredible ignorance and gullibility of many parents, and we've seen the adverse effects on the nation's schools of the legacy of local control, and we've fought again and again to help citizens to understand the pernicious effects of corporatism on American education. But to do so would be to admit to the public that we are, in fact, "liberal" elites who believe that our superior education and awareness of research and time spent in schools gives us a greater capacity to make educational decisions than the average parent. But to do so would be, inevitably and perhaps deservedly, to reinforce the public's perception, articulated so well by William F. Buckley, that "
"I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University." The public, you see, just doesn't trust well-educated people.

And Arne Duncan, allegedly the Secretary of Education, but more accurately called the Secretary of Public Perception of Education, understands that.


Mr. Cantor said...

Thanks for the insightful post.

Unknown said...

I'd like to see Dr. Cunningham's suggestions as to how to inform or educate the public. Most of these articulate, well-grounded, and sophisticated blog articles exist in the tiny world of the academics and the handful of people who like to read this stuff. Huffing and puffing, posturing, or even clearly arguing a point among a small group of peers changes nothing. If things are going to change for the better, the public is going to have to have their minds changed. Maybe it could happen in the way that they changed their view of smoking - through a wide ranging array of concerted efforts over time. But unless massive efforts are directed at public education, we're salmon swimming up Niagra Falls.

Craig A. Cunningham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig A. Cunningham said...

I have been working in a variety of venues to make my perspectives and suggestions known, including writing a book for teachers (Curriculum Webs, Allyn & Bacon, 2nd edition), publishing in a variety of scholarly journals, presenting at conferences, teaching my classes (including history and philosophy of education (where my views on the purposes and best approaches to public education can receive a fair hearing), and being a persistent disseminater of pronouncements of all types on Twitter and Facebook. When and if I get tenure (I find out this June), or doesn't for that matter, he might have a better podium for speaking more forcefully and directly to the public at large.

Aaron Schutz said...

While I value Craig's work, I think it doesn't really answer the poster's question. More research and preaching mostly to the choir is not going to do much (evidenced by how much good it's done so far).

If we really wanted to do anything, we would need to do serious market research on what would help people understand how stupid they are being. And then a significant campaign to get that information out. Another option would be strong political pressure. Of course, professors are not well situated to do either of these things.

Let's face it, while we need to keep putting the truth out there, we are having little or no effect, and most of what we write involves accentuating the obvious. From a political/socially effective standpoint, most of what we do is useless, and some limited amount of what we do is potentially useful in the future (although it's hard to predict what).

While I value what we do do, I'm not sure it's helpful to fool ourselves about this reality.

If 1000 professors gave $100 dollars to a campaign to actually do something, maybe that would help a little. But then we'd likely get bogged down in arguments about what that was.